Interior Secretary James Watt, hardly a stranger to controversy, is once again promising to throw open America's federal lands and offshore areas to oil drilling. But he's also pushing some in the oil industry to help unseat liberal Democrats who might stand in the way of his plans.
''It's nice to be with friends,'' Mr. Watt told some 1,400 independent oil producers meeting here in Dallas at the annual convention of the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA). The group is speaks for the 15,000 ''wildcatters'' who drill over 85 percent of all US oil and gas wells.
One sign of friendship: Mr. Watt promised to continue opening up more federal lands to exploration and to continue ease federal regulations and taxation.
But the second part of his message - a bluntlypartisan political appeal - brought a cool response. Adding some political strings to his promises, he called on Texans to replace Democratic incumbent Sen. Lloyd Bentsen with Rep. James M. Collins, the Republican challenger hoping to win an uphill battle to move to the Senate.
Watt boasted about his greatly accelerated program to open up federal lands and offshore areas to drilling: ''This year we will have leased more acreage than the previous (Carter) administration leased in its entire four years.'' But he warned that such advances can continue only if the November elections return ''more congressmen who will support the President's programs.''
Watt continued, ''Congress insisted on spreading out and watering down the President's economic recovery program, prolonging the agony of recession . . . .
''We simply can't turn this country over to the liberals,'' he said, warning that ''the 1982 elections are critical to the future of America.'' He said the US either must find major new oil and gas reserves or else launch an ''unprecedented'' nuclear program.
Naming Democratic senators Edward M. Kennedy and Paul E. Tsongas of Massachusetts, Alan Cranston of California, and Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, along with House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. of Massachusetts as obstacles to developing US coal, oil, and nuclear power, Watt said, ''I have had to contend with 20 to 30 of these guys day in and day out.''
But the political quid-pro-quo Watt asked for - help in throwing-the-liberal-rascals-out in return for new energy policies - may not come from independent oilmen. Independents, it seems, have their own ways of measuring political performance.
Prominent Dallas independent L. Frank Pitts agrees the '82 elections are important, saying, ''We need people elected to Congress who understand the importance of energy to jobs, to the economy, and to our national security.'' But unlike Watt, Mr. Pitts says Senator Bentsen and a number of other Democrats ''fully understand the energy situation.'' Oilmen point to Bentsen's 97 percent IPAA rating for Senate votes on energy issues, calling him a powerful legislator who has achieved many energy industry objectives.
Pitts says IPAA producers ''want less government regulation, particularly on natural gas, and we ask government not to tax our industry out of existence.'' But he doesn't share Watt's view that Democrats are obstacles to implementing new energy policies.